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Oct 28, 2003



It's much easier to see what these worlds could be than to actually design that future under extreme time constraints.

I was also struck by Mark Jacobs' comment that these are dark times for MMOGs. It makes sense; there's over-supply and therefore, quite a few games have disappointing subscription numbers. This has nothing to do with quality, and has no implication for the future, either. But everybody rushed into the market and new games are appearing too quickly. In fact, I'm rather surprised that SWG is now over 300K. I think it's a fun game (for a butterfly-hunting newbie scout, anyway), but I thought the competition was too intense now for those kind of numbers to accumulate so rapidly. But there they are.


I actually started to have a bit of fun these last few sessions and, not surprisingly for me, it was tied to getting a bit more involved with people in the game (which in turn helps foster my play). But I am struck by how parts of it feel familiar in a daunting way. Is killing a womp rat outside Mos Entha all that different than an infested one in Steamfont and do I really want to go through that again?? I know that isn't all there is to the game (heh, Ted, I'm a scout/musician combo myself) but still as a starting point I've felt myself a bit weary. Of course, familarity is an important part of gaming quite often - so I wonder why I am less tolerant of it in this genre...


"Of course, familarity is an important part of gaming quite often - so I wonder why I am less tolerant of it in this genre..."

Having played 2 MMOGs long-term, several short-term, and beta-tested or "tried" more than I can remember(not unlike many here, I'm not special in that regard), I think mechanical familiarity is a hindrance particular to mmoRPgs - capitalization for emphasis - as opposed to the advantage of familiarity found in many other types of games.

Nearly every FPS game either defaults to or allows the player to use the WAD+mouse defacto standard of gameplay, and nearly all of them are mechanically identical - if it moves, shoot it, keep moving, and don't get shot.

Even single-player RPGs tend to benefit from this familiarity because the player is actually the hero, and therefore, and integral part of the story, so mechanics and gameplay make the actual playing of the game easier if you know what to expect.

On the other hand, MMORPGs make everyone a ratcatcher/goblinbonker in order to progress and gameplay is not much more exciting than that for the vast majority of the amount of time spent in-game. Take EQ - you can write a Cleric guide for being in a group in one line:
Buff, sit, meditate, wait, stand, heal, sit, meditate. Repeat as needed.
That's fun the first time around, when you learn to be efficient and successful, and even the second time when you can be comfortable and not constantly worry about death and corpse retrieval quite as much.
But after that, it gets boring. You learn the new hot-keys and it's basically the same game with modded graphics and different names for things.

I eagerly await a MMORPG that isn't just a commercial mod of the first and first-and-a-half generation MMORPGs, but I haven't read about it yet.

Treadmills, boredom, the Grind, evil demons! the power of fun compels you! Begone! Teehee!

Anyway, single-player RPGs and MP FPSs - familiarity = good. MMORPGs, shake it up. Gimme something new, not graphically, not storyline, but fundamentally, mechanically, paradigmatically NEW!

Or maybe not, that might be risky. Better stick to what's bankable, right?


Well, here's something a little new in SWG: for the first time, I actually feel truly immersed in a legitimate economy. My job, quite literally, is to hunt butterflies. On Naboo, they have hides of the highest malleability and quality. I don't know the game well enough to understand why other players grab these hides as quickly as I put them up for sale, but they do. And so, every night, I boot up and re-think myself as an explorer who goes around this huge galaxy, searching the wilderness for good hides for my anonymous customers. I'm totally self-reliant; getting to the butterflies and taking them down is kind of an evolving puzzle that involves exploring, trapping, and good shooting; I have to do some crafting along the way, turning bones and hide and meat into tents and traps and food; and at the end of the night, I feel pretty relaxed.


I have been increasing my activity in SWG a bit recently and am enjoying it more and more as time progresses. I think their skill system works in a way that is very interesting. In EQ I had a number of characters and was always flipping from one to the next. But in SWG, I'm able to max out a tree, then drop it and max something else. This has persuaded me to only start one character who has maxed out a number of ladders and dropped several. It has also allowed me to try out all the ladders with the same name and find out which ones I like, and which I don't care for without having to repeat any.

As for the grind, I have taken up building marcos. The first was for the musician ladder and dancer ladder. Now I am doing the same with Creature Handler and Rifleman ladders. Macros have a way of transforming the game from a fast fingered mess into a very well paced strategy game. It will be interesting to watch how things progress and to see what Sony is able to do with the base that they have grown so quickly.


I want to pick up on a different aspect of Burke's piece if I may.
I was struck by his kind of outraged tone at not having his suggestions listened to or acted upon by the developers, and how there was a thread running through his comments which focused not just on game-play balance and economies and so on, but on the developer- player relations:

"Communication from the developers has been generally poor, at times non-existent. The official forums have been closed to outside view in an attempt to conceal the problems plaguing the game, and forum moderators have become increasingly strident and defensive about closing and deleting critical threads, including some that simply link to critical reviews of the game on major sites like Gamespy—reflecting a general antipathy towards player feedbackin general and the forums in specific despite the fact that the developers also clearly rely on it in various ways. "


"I think there have been occasional moments of bad faith in the ways that the development team has communicated, and I’m finding myself more and more irritated by the gap between Raph Koster’s stated beliefs in the rights of players and the obligations of developers and the day-to-day mismanagement of community relations within SWG."

To me this is the surfacing of the tensions involved in this being both a publication industry and a service industry. There are the particular constraints of, and dictates of, creating a publication - there are deadlines and cycles and institutional mechanisms, mostly established for other forms of media. And then there are the demands of managing relationships that go with being a service industry. And the mechanisms of each just aren't meshing...yet. I think maybe the industry is still struggling to incorporate player opinion, well-being, and possible contributions to content, into their own production processes in any meaningful way. Lip-service, yes. Willingness to try, yes. But effective manifestation? not yet.


Elephant: "A mouse designed by committee"

Creativity does not come in herds. Creativity comes in small bunches and small doses. The larger the team, the less creative the output. The longer the list of requirements, the more vanilla bland the product.

You guys flatter yourselves by claiming to produce virtual worlds, or in a slightly more honest vein, virtual spaces.

You are not creating virtual worlds, nor virtual environments. What you are creating is shooting galleries. I can go to the local amusement park and find every bit as much immersion, if not more, by throwing balls at stacks of milk bottles as I can in most MMOGs that I have tried.

In a virtual world, there should be something going on. There should be constant flux. No player should ever be able to log in two days in a row and find things unchanged. NPCs should be moving around and doing things. There should be content specific staff EVERY DAY online playing the game and looking for a chance to get players involved. If no players are interested in getting involved, then the staff should go ahead and be playing the game themselves, just to keep things moving along. Just to keep the environment in a state of flux.

Boil down all the complaints. Biol down the bitter comments, and high-minded analysis and what does it come out to? Most parts of most MMOGs are BORING as hell. Deathly dull. BOOOOOOORRRIIING.

Why are they boring? Because nothing ever changes. You kill the same rat over and over. You kill the same goblin over and over. You shoot the same politician over and over. You rob the same house over and over. You dicker with the same merchant over and over for the same damn meat pie.

You spend precious irreplacable hours out of your life in these virtual shooting galleries and at the end of two or three years, what do you have to show for it? Memories of endless hours spent chatting with people waiting for the same mob to spawn. Memories of chatting with your buddies while you autorun (ignoring the passing scenery because you have seen it literally thousands of times before and Nothing-Ever-Changes), memories of visiting the same NPC over and over and over and over again, week after weary, weary week.

Even if you change the graphics to make it look like a new season, the new wears off fast. Make the ground white and call it winter. So what? Your character never gets cold and the mobs are just as active. And you can't track anything. Make is spring. Gee, the groud is green again, how fascinating.

Add some new mobs (i.e. the same mobs as before, with higher stats and different graphics) and people will work our cookbook tactics to deal with them inside a week.

An online MMOG should be a place where you can build memories of something not unlike an experience.

Memories of what? Memories of endless chatting to kill time while you engage in boring "work" activity in what was supposed to be fun.

Make - Things - Change. Make things different each time a player logs in. Make a WORLD that actually has an independent existence, instead of renting a convention hall, hanging up a few dart boards, and calling it an immersive experience.


B. Smith wrote, "Make - Things - Change. Make things different each time a player logs in. Make a WORLD that actually has an independent existence, instead of renting a convention hall, hanging up a few dart boards, and calling it an immersive experience."

Sure thing! That'll be $50/month, please.

What? You thought you could get away with just paying the normal $10-15/month?

Let's put this in perspective. A friend of mine pays $80/month for "you get everything" digital cable. Hundreds of channels crap. Premium movie channels that show the same half dozen movies every day for a month. Channels dedicated to reruns of shows. All this for $80/month!

Now you want more variety than digital cable can provide for 1/6th the price? Something's not lining up here. And it isn't merely because of the lazy designers that "flatter ourselves" by using terms like "virtual worlds".

My thoughts,


According to Raph's Theory of Fun presentation at the Austin Game Conference:

"Instanced spaces in massively multiplayer games are a designer’s attempt to maintain
control over the puzzles that players are solving."

I really think the reason things never change in virtual worlds has more to do with control than with money. I don't need $50 worth of content. Give me a richer context where there is the possibility to change more than just my character's stats. Then allow my character to do the more boring activities while I'm offline if I so choose. If macroing makes a game more fun, then for gosh sake's, put it in, but do it in a way that won't use up bandwidth.

Finally, ignore 99.9% of what your potential players say. Instead, start with a strong vision and don't waver from it. Listen to those things that resonate with your vision and ignore those things that do not. Otherwise, a mass of players will become your designer. A mass that has not particular vision or focus. And you'll end up with SWG.

--Phin *the 0.1% you should always listen to ;)*


At no point did the word "lazy" cross my cursor nor my mind. I wasn't talking lazy, I was talking about mindset.

Would it really cost that much more to have one or two of your staff drop into the game for an hour or so at random intervals and tweak things bit? The cumulative effect of small changes over time would have the same result as massively sweeping changes at rare intervals. Of course, most game worlds are not designed to allow for this possibility. They are designed from the git go to be set in stone. Once a building, always a building. Never a building one day and a fire scorched ruin the next. Abandoned houses never get moved into. Stores never go out of business. Blacksmiths never burn themselves and need a random PC to run to the healer's shop for them. Stuff like that.

You could probably get by with one GM per server, and a bunch fo volunteer guides for part tiem supporting characters if needed.

Heck, you guys do this sort of thing NOW in M59. I know you do. I have seen you doing it. Not the moving buildings, or NPCs, etc. But I have seen you drop into the game just to keep an eye on things. Couldn't drop into one of the shopkeepers, or the bartender once in a blue moon and do something random?

Just wishful thinking.


B. Smith wrote, "You could probably get by with one GM per server, and a bunch of volunteer guides for part time supporting characters if needed."

Er, volunteers are currently not used due to legal status. You'll notice that EQ is the last game to have volunteer positions that have real power in the game. You'll also notice that SWG, also developed by SOE, does NOT have volunteers. Too complicated, legally.

B. Smith also wrote, "Heck, you guys do this sort of thing NOW in M59."

Yes. The fourth person we hired on was an events coordinator. He goes out and runs dynamic events for the playerbase. However, this is hardly a pancea, otherwise people would be bored with the big-name games and flocking to M59.

The problems are multitude. First, hiring someone costs money. We pay our events coordinator a significant amount of our monthly income, and he's horribly underpaid. This is less of an issue for a larger game, but still an issue.

Furthermore, you have issues of fairness. What if you weren't near the bar where we were role-playing with the character? What if someone near the bar doesn't like being interrupted by the admin playing the character? What if there are prizes awarded for the event, and you weren't able to get there? What if the rewards are unique and you didn't get a chance to get one? What if you play at 3 AM server time, when the admins are usually asleep? Someone is going to be upset that the "dynamic" content didn't include them, interfered with their gameplay, or that someone else got a prize they didn't.

That's really the crux of the issue, I think. Adding in dynamic content isn't fun for everyone. A large part of the current audience is happy with the content these games current provide, and game developers don't necessarily see the return on profit on investing time, money, and training to keep the easily bored people that demand dynamic content interested.

You may think that SWG is flat and boring, but there's obviously hundreds of thousands of people that think that the game is adequate for their entertainment needs. I think it's really hard to argue that the tremendous cost that dynamic content incurs would really pay off in that many more subscribers in any of these games. Doing dynamic content "right" is very expensive, in terms of development time or manpower to hold events.

Don't get me wrong, I love dynamic content; I play in paper RPG groups with very flexible GMs, and I love the freeform style of play. But, I think it's just not feasible from a business point of view to chase after this chimera of dynamic content that will bring in positive number multiples of the existing playerbase.

Some clarification on my thoughts,


B.Smith>Boil down all the complaints. Biol down the bitter comments, and high-minded analysis and what does it come out to? Most parts of most MMOGs are BORING as hell. Deathly dull. BOOOOOOORRRIIING.

Unfortunately, the majority of attempts to make them interesting are not recognised as such by most players. What most players want is for their virtual world to be exactly the same as the first virtual world they got into, only interesting. The more deviation a virtual world exhibits from the first one that they got into, as it was when they got into it, the less likely they are to accept it.

There are two tragedies associated with this:
1) Most players are doomed never to find the virtual world they want, because they aren't willing to accept the changes that would make it the world they want (and no, this isn't a covert reference to PD).
2) Most new virtual worlds are doomed to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

I worry that some of the additions that are being touted as solutions to the boredom are only going to make things worse. I have no doubt that auto-generated content will be fun - hey, I enjoyed playing Rogue myself - but it seriously dulls what virtual worlds are about. Likewise, trained puppeteers performing for the benefit of rapt crowds will be fun - hey, I enjoyed D&D myself - but it merely papers over the cracks.

The best - and in the end, the only - solution is to make the virtual world itself such an interesting and richly interactive place that the only reason you'd want to repeat the consumption of a piece of content was because you enjoyed it so much you want to try it again. Hey, I enjoy chocolate myself!



I wasnt advocating staging a full fledged, GM hosted player event twice a day and thrice on weekends. I wasn't talking about rewarding prizes. I wasn't suggesting a grand, awful, and gloriously massive onslaught of RPG immersion.

I was talking about dropping into an NPC at random intervals and producing something more original than the stock scripts. I was talking about hailing a bartender and instead of having him say, "What'll it be?" every time invariably, once in a blue moon it would be nice to have him reply, "Damn, i have a headache you wouldn't believe. You haven't got a health potion/healing kit/aspirin on you do you?" And if you give him one, raise your faction rating by the tinest bit.

I wasn't talking about adding additional content. I was talking about putting a little, just a tiny little bit, of meat onto the bare dried bones that constitute the current approach. I was talking about taking a few minutes out of the day to get down and dirty and actually play the games you try to understand.

Ever just drop into an NPC that is under attack and override its stock programming to make it run away instead of standing and fighting suicide odds? (Yes, I know that the new mobs have that option written in, that is not what I mean). I am talking about making the game world come alive. Randon chance is not necessarily an evil and putrid thing, no matter what the standard 1+1=10, cut n paste, cookbook conditioning of most programmers might believe.

All I was advocating was making things a little bit less predictable.


B.Smith>I was talking about dropping into an NPC at random intervals and producing something more original than the stock scripts.

This is something that works well IF the players involved are up for it. Sometimes they're not. That's not an excuse for live teams not to do it, though - it's easy enough to have a "no callers" flag set on your character so the actor knows not to role-play with you.

>I was talking about taking a few minutes out of the day to get down and dirty and actually play the games you try to understand.

Playing a game is the best way to find out what it's like "on the street". It's time-consuming and it means your work and leisure activities intersect, but it's certainly something I recommend.

>Ever just drop into an NPC that is under attack and override its stock programming to make it run away instead of standing and fighting suicide odds?

Yes, I have. It helps if the mobile is theoretically capable of the actions you make it do anyway, though. Otherwise, players tend to regard it as cheating. "If I'd known you were going to make it run through the door, I'd have posted someone on the door. Now, I have to post someone on the door every damned time just in case some admin decides to punish me for not doing it".



I wonder if you could get away with using volunteers legally if your game company is a 501(c) non-profit? With some imagination, I could see a game company claiming that it is a "Social and Recreation Club." Or even a "Private Literary Organization." If you donated some of your income to charity or science, you'd almost certainly qualify.

I'm not a lawyer, but since so many non-profits use unpaid volunteers, I figure the laws regarding them must be different.

Of course, a non-profit studio would have a hard time getting a publisher... And if they didn't self-publish, that could be a tangle.

Anarchy Online still uses volunteers, both for "tier 1" support and for small story events. Surprisingly, events led by ARKs (volunteers) and roleplaying guilds are generally more fun than those run by Funcom (refuting the common notion that players can only produce crap). Not surprisingly, AO still has a strong (if small) community whereas games with more, ah... technical competence such as DAoC lost this kind of community after a few months.

It is also interesting to compare the player complaints about SWG with AO's Shadowlands expansion. Both feature poorly disguised timesinks, including having to run (or swim!!!) for hours. In both games, I often felt that I did not accomplish anything at all after a "casual" 2-hour weeknight session. This seems particularly galling to old-school AO players who place high value on AO's relative lack of downtime and travel times.


AFFA>I wonder if you could get away with using volunteers legally if your game company is a 501(c) non-profit?

Alternatively, you can just run it in a country where minimum wage legislation is interpreted differently.



R. Bartle>I have no doubt that auto-generated content will be fun...but it seriously dulls what virtual worlds are about.

I'm interested in some clarification on what you mean here. Are you saying this method of content-generation is trespassing into the role of the player (i.e. being a cheap substitute for player-driven content)?

And I think you said it well with, "Most players are doomed never to find the virtual world they want, because they aren't willing to accept the changes that would make it the world they want." Even further, I'd go so far as to say that most players can't identify the world they want, which is why they can't see the potential changes as for the better.

On the topic of developer-player communication, many still claim that SWG has the best there is. Whether or not that meets the absolute standard of "good", the answer is probably no, but it seems that it is comparatively ahead of the curve.



The last point is important, and not talked about enough. I think EVE (Iceland-based game company, though I think support is not located there)is the first game that drilled it home to me. These games can be based anywhere the technology is reasonably available and business conditions are amenable. Development and operation are not geographically tied. And, since the core is data, they can move if conditions dictate. At the moment most of us think of the games as English-based still, but the Asian market more than challenges that assumption. Each world probably needs its one base language, and the hosting country would have to provide a labor source fluent in that language, but that is about it, as far as I can see.

I'm not sure how CS staffing is handled for the big games, but I don't see any practical reason for siting it in a large metro area where labor costs (via cost of living) are high. But from SWG's banner, it appears its CS is in the Southern Cal area, not a part of the country I associate with lower cost of living. If that's the case, I wonder how it's justified in the business model in an environment where labor is often sourced offshore (India is very big for the US market's outsourcing). Since a lot of the support is writing based too, accents aren't a large issue, just writing skills.

I keep having thoughts that as the price of the needed technology plummets the third-world labor pool will enter the equation more and more. What I earn a month from EVE is more than most do in those countries. And I play at it. To me it's just a measuring stick, not my rice and beans.


TEK>I'm interested in some clarification on what you mean here. Are you saying this method of content-generation is trespassing into the role of the player (i.e. being a cheap substitute for player-driven content)?

No, I'm not; I'm generally as unimpressed by player-generated content as everyone else (save the player who generated it). I like in-context generation (buy the land, buy the materials, pay the workers to build the house) but not out-of-context generation (use the development tools to create a complex from nothing). Ideally, "content" should arise from the action and interaction of players.

When I said that auto-generated content dulls what virtual worlds are about, I was attempting not to have to explain in detail as otherwise I'd just end up telling people they ought to go read my book. Basically, though, auto-generated content pits the players against a random-number generator too overtly. If it looks random and feels random, the player isn't going to find that conquering it moves them along their personal journey to fulfilment.

I believe it's possible for auto-generated content to feel enough like it's designed that the players can accept it as such like they do any other part of the virtual world. It's not going to be that way for some time, though.



Dan Scheltema>think EVE (Iceland-based game company, though I think support is not located there)is the first game that drilled it home to me.

Interestingly, Iceland has a population roughly the same as that of UO. If EVE were to become as big a success, there could be more people playing it than living in the country in which it was hosted.

Currently, a lot of call centre work in the UK is being moved to India. The people speak English there, yet even if they're paid only 25% of UK minimum wages they're still comparatively well-paid by Indian standards. The only objections I've heard from the business community as to why a company might not want to transfer work out there are:

1) the time difference (when they're needed, they may be asleep)
2) cultural issues (they have gaps in their knowledge of UK habits)
3) unsound Indian business practices (ie. bribery/corruption)
4) resentment by UK unions that their jobs are at risk of being exported
5) suspicions that some customers may be put off by the idea (ie. customer racism)

Assuming none of these were problematical for virtual world customer service, I don't see a problem in setting up a centre in somewhere like India.



I believe that the game design itself can help take some of the burden off of customer service and relieve the need for volunteers. Imagine the following design.

1) In addition to character advancement, the game fully supports and encourages community advancement.

2) Community advancement involves increasing the population/citizenship in your community to certain levels where the whole community receives a "ding" along with appropriate new community abilities and privileges.

3) Communities are given various tools (eg. the ability to build and staff an information center in their town) that are geared toward attracting and retaining citizens.

When communities are competing over newbies and have strong incentives to ensure that their citizens remain happily in the game, subscriber attraction and retention becomes synonymous with citizen attraction and retention. The players who are manning the information centers are no longer volunteers, they are merely playing the game to move toward a winning community position as defined by the game's developer.



Richard>..."content" should arise from the action and interaction of players.

This is actually what I was referring to, so yes I agree 100%. And I think enabling the players to this end with supportive game mechanics should be the prime focus of any MMORPG.

And this brings us back to SWG, which will be introducing player cities to the live servers shortly (they are currently on the test center). With this addition, Sony will attempt to cover some of those bases, as you describe, Phin. Here are some of the motivating mechanics:

Players join a city by "declaring residence" at a house located withing the city radius (a player may only have one declared residence). The number of residents determines city rank (1-5), and for the town to support various municipalities (ie shuttle port, bank) it must have achieved the corresponding city rank. Each week the residents elect a mayor, and this player is invested with some administrative powers. Among these powers are: appointing milita, who may enforce the law within the city; and setting taxes, which may take form as a sales, income, property, or transportation (shuttle) tax. The taxes go towards paying the upkeep on the public structures (not sure if they allow mayors to abuse the coffers).

But yes, I think advancing the in-game community is paramount. This is where one gets to add a lot of dimension to the experience, more than just controlling a walking set of skills. And, as above, I think all should be done to support its development. I'm also a firm believer that, given the right tools, a set of solid mechanics, and an enjoyable game, a community will police itself. Consequently, we would be able to relax some of the restrictions placed on the world, erasing some of the invisible barriers that players bump into and can't help but notice.


Personally, I think it would be great if the mayors of SWG player cities had more "actual" game control within their city. For instance, maybe an editor which allows customization of the missions on the terminals within the city, not just the ability to place them. You should also be given a number of NPC's to be placed at your discretion within your city for the main purpose of creating fresh content. You could even offer Player City faction points/perks. If we had the ability to add our own content, even at the most basic level, I think it would add more value to gameplay. I would much rather write missions for terminals and dialogue for NPC's than craft a million survival knives. As for volunteers, I'd love an internship to see how the system actually works internally.




Cross-ref to Jason Craft's comments:


Some follow-up of the initial thread should also point that the commercial politic of SOE has stalled SWG in an unplayable state.

For different reasons and mainly the total lack of balence between the different fighting professions, SOE decided to totally revamp the way combat mechanic was handled.

They started to revamp the game layer by layer... and then realized that the famous Space Expansion was due for release in december 2004. The financial impact of such an extension being what it is, all the combat revamp patches were pushed aside and the fan sites were flooded with the new expansions so-exclusive screenshots.

At this time, the game being half-fixed and half-borked, anyone can jump in an unexpensive set of armor, hire someone playing a Doctor for 3 hrs buffs, and run in the wilderness killing any mob you want in a total /god_mode ON way of life.

Is there any Star Wars addict able to picture a melee fighter surrounded by 10 Rancors unable to scratch him ? Well, this disturbing experience is the average day of any casual SWG player.

Cheers !

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